Jae C. Hong, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy is showing signs of finally bottoming out: Americans are on the move again after record numbers had stayed put, more young adults are leaving their parents' homes to take a chance with college or the job market, once-sharp declines in births are leveling off and poverty is slowing.
New 2011 census data released Thursday offer glimmers of hope in an economic recovery that technically began in mid-2009. The annual survey, supplemented with unpublished government figures as of March 2012, covers a year in which unemployment fell modestly from 9.6 percent to 8.9 percent.
Not all is well. The jobless rate remains high at 8.1 percent. Home ownership dropped for a fifth straight year to 64.6 percent, the lowest in more than a decade, hurt by more stringent financing rules and a shift to renting. More Americans than ever are turning to food stamps, while residents in housing that is considered "crowded" held steady at 1 percent, tied for the highest since 2003.
Taken as a whole, however, analysts say the latest census data provide wide-ranging evidence of a stabilizing U.S. economy. Coming five years after the housing bust, such a leveling off would mark an end to the longest and most pernicious economic decline since World War II.
"We may be seeing the beginning of the American family's recovery from the Great Recession," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. He pointed in particular to the upswing in mobility and to young men moving out of their parents' homes, both signs that more young adults were testing out job prospects.
"It could be the modest number of new jobs or simply the belief that the worst is over," Cherlin said.
Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University, said the data point to a "fragile recovery," with the economy still at risk of falling back into recession, depending in part on who is president and whether Congress averts a "fiscal cliff" of deep government spending cuts and higher taxes in January. "Given the situation in the world economy, we are doing better than many other countries," he said. "Government policies remain critical."
The census figures also show slowing growth in the foreign-born population, which increased to 40.4 million, or 13 percent of the U.S. population. Last year's immigration increase of 400,000 people was the lowest in a decade, reflecting a minimal gain of Latinos after many Mexicans already in the U.S. opted to return home. Some 11 million people are estimated to be in the U.S. illegally.
The bulk of new immigrants are now higher-skilled workers from Asian countries such as China and India, contributing to increases in the foreign-born population in California, New York, Illinois and New Jersey.
Income inequality varied widely by region. The gap between rich and poor was most evident in the District of Columbia, New York, Connecticut, Louisiana and New Mexico, where immigrant or minority groups were more numerous. By county, Berkeley in West Virginia had the biggest jump in household income inequality over the past year, a result of fast suburban growth just outside the Washington-Baltimore region, where pockets of poor residents and newly arrived, affluent commuters live side by side.
As a whole, Americans were slowly finding ways to get back on the move. About 12 percent of the nation's population, or 36.5 million, moved to a new home, up from a record low of 11.6 percent in 2011.
Among young adults 25 to 29, the most mobile age group, moves also increased to 24.6 percent from a low of 24.1 percent in the previous year. Longer-distance moves, typically for those seeking new careers in other regions of the country, rose modestly from 3.4 percent to 3.8 percent.
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